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Discontent flaring in rural Egypt

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According to the Land Center for Human Rights, an advocacy group, there were 49 deaths and 430 arrests in land disputes last year, a growing trend as Egypt changes its laws to a more market-oriented capitalist model, allowing big lander owners to sell and aggregate their holdings into bigger and more efficient farms.

While the facts are almost always disputed, peasants and their advocates allege that the police usually side with large landowners, and action is taken in most cases to prevent peasant protests and deny them access to the court of public opinion.

Though Sarando's peasants have been released from prison, many have complained beatings at the hands of the police. Nafissa Zakaria, one of the arrested villagers, died in hospital a day after her release. She was 38 years old.

Some of the farmers say they were pressed by police to sign documents acknowledging Nawar's ownership of the land. Prosecutor-General Maher Abdel-Wahed conducted a brief investigation into Ms. Zakaria's death, saying all evidence pointed to natural causes.

"What happens with the peasants and farmers will be the real litmus test of political change in Egypt,'' says Karem Saber, director of the Land Center for Human Rights. "Right now, liberalization is just for big businessmen. Workers aren't free to unionize, and farmers can't form cooperatives or associations to protect themselves."

Dating back to the pharaohs

Trouble on the land has been a recurrent theme in Egypt's history. The grain surpluses that made the great pyramids possible in Pharaonic times were generated by mandatory crop-sharing with the government, and until independence, agricultural workers were largely serfs tied to the land.

But Egypt's first president, the socialist-leaning Gamal Abdul Nasser, imposed strict limits on private land holdings starting in the 1950s, taking much of Egypt's arable land into trusts that rented to tenants at fixed and low rates.

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